A 12-year-old girl in the US has been arrested and charged with computer harassment and threatening her school for posting the gun, bomb and knife emojis on Instagram in response to being bullied – the latest incident in a rising trend where police have trouble distinguishing if threats are real.

Emojis are a natural revolution from the smiley face emoticons that internet users have been sending each other to express feelings since the early days of BBSs. Rather than just depicting happy, sad or angry faces, emojis have developed into a web language of pictorial icons popular with young people that depict most things and activities in daily life, from cars, animals, money, shopping, eating and landmarks to functions in society, such as a policeman or fire engine.

On 14 December 2015, a resource officer at Sidney Lanier Middle School in Fairfax, Virginia was made aware that a student had posted several threatening Instagram posts. In part, the most concerning post read:


Given the US's long history with school shootings, any possible threats are taken very seriously and the officer began interviewing the students at the school, as well as sending an emergency request to identify the IP address of the person who owned the Instagram account.

The police tracked the IP address down to the 12-year-old, who admitted that she had posted the messages on Instagram and that she had done it under the name of another student. But although the Fairfax County school authority said in a statement that the threat was deemed to be "not credible", the girl was still charged with threatening the school, as well as computer harassment.

The search warrant documents seen by the Washington Post indicate that the girl would have had her first appearance in juvenile court at the end of December 2015, but it is not yet known how or if the case has been resolved.

The girl's mother told the Washington Post that the girl posted the messages in response to being bullied in school, and that she had never been in trouble in school before, so she shouldn't have been charged for posting the message.

Real death threats, or just teenage angst?

Police in the US are increasingly having a hard time trying to figure out whether teenage ramblings online equate to real threats or just run-of-the-mill teen angst.

On 18 Janaury 2015, Osiris Aristy, 17, a teenager from Brooklyn, New York, was arrested for posting several Facebook statuses featuring gun emojis pointing at an emoji of the police, together with text. One post in particular read: "N***a run up on me, he gunna get blown down".

As Aristy had also posted selfies of himself posing with a revolver and rounds of ammunition, as well as a marijuana joint, he was arrested and charged with making terrorist threats, criminal possession of a weapon, criminal use of drugs and criminal possession of marijuana.

During their investigation, the NYPD found two different firearms and over 25g of marijuana packed into 21 Ziplock bags in Aristy's bedroom, so he was found guilty of all of the charges except one – the grand jury declined to indict him on the charge of making a terrorist attack.

In another significant case, Anthony Elonis posted multiple Facebook statuses where he threatened to kill his estranged wife after she took their children and left him. The court found that a reasonable listener would determine that the posts were a real threat, so Elonis was convicted and sentenced to 44 months in jail in December 2014 for violating the federal threats statute.

However Elonis then took the case to the US Supreme Court, arguing that he was posting lyrics in the persona of a rapper like Eminem as art or therapy, and that because he had posted a smiley face with the text, it showed that his posts were meant only in jest. Interestingly, The Supreme Court overturned his conviction in June 2015 and set a new precedent that a person's criminal liability cannot only be judged without looking at their mental state.